The New City State

The past months have seen effort after effort to arrive at a new constitutional arrangement for Canada. What has emerged from it all is more and more evidence that, at the end of the twentieth century, old ways of organizing governments are breaking down. The ‘invincible’ U.S.S.R. has evaporated into a smorgasbord of new Republics. Yugoslavia has spun off Croatia. Scotland and Ireland are becoming restive at government from Westminster. Now that the world is no longer divided between two nuclear power zones, it seems as if the glue of fear, that kept many nations together under a single government, is not binding them together in the same way as it once did. Rather, national governments are becoming more and more powerless, as local units become integrated in a total world economy.

Something else is also happening. Within the same country of Canada, we see native communities, French-Canadian communities, and the English speaking citizens of Canada all preferring to follow their own ethnic agendas in preference to their loyalty to their nation of Canada. Perhaps shadows of what was to come were perceptible as long ago as the time of the Riel rebellion, and the Quebec conscription crisis of 1917. Just as crowded nations in Europe or India have developed a class or caste system, in which a number of different ‘nations’ can exist independently within the same territory, so in Canada, we are developing a multi-cultural country where the central government is, at best, a convenience, but the emotional attachment of the citizen is to his or her class or ethnic group.

Are we going back to the era of the city state? This has in fact a long and honourable history. The beginnings of democracy lay in ancient Greece, where individual cities dominated the surrounding farmland to create a single state. Rome was such a city, before developing its empire. Italy and Germany both attained high degrees of prosperity and culture, as leagues of city states, before their ‘unification’ in the late nineteenth century. It was in fact the development of the railway, with its associated ability to concentrate military and organizational power, that made the present day mega-nation a possibility. Canada was linked by the C.P.R.: Russia by the Trans-Siberian Railway. Cecil Rhodes had a dream of uniting Africa by a railroad from the Cape to Cairo.

Nowadays, we have electronic communication around the world in a fraction of a second. We have international trading blocks and multi-national companies that override national boundaries, and take the fullest advantage of international tax avoidance and economic advantages, which even the most protectionist governments cannot thwart. In a world where transportation can take one around the globe in a matter of hours, an anglophone white Albertan is more likely to identify emotionally with an opposite number in San Francisco, than with French speaking Canadians in his own province, or Quebecois, or Inuit living in the Arctic or aboriginals on a reserve. That song of ‘Canada – we love thee’, theme of the 1967 Expo, seems terribly dated today!

From a constitutional point of view, what does this all mean? Perhaps it means that a great deal of what goes on in Ottawa—income tax, the Canada Assistance Plan, Bilingualism, the C.R.T.C., perhaps even the armed forces—is really irrelevant to the ordinary business of life for the average Canadian. We could clear it all from our newspapers and our pocketbooks, and nobody would miss it very much at all. The hypertrophy of our federal government can and will soon lead to atrophy—signs of this are already apparent in the number of regional federal political parties planning to contest the next Federal election.

Provincial politics, too, are likely to become the politics of a single city, around which most of the activity of the provincial area will rotate. British Columbia will become an appendage of Vancouver, Manitoba of Winnipeg, Ontario of Toronto, Quebec of Montreal. Alberta will centre around the twin centres of Edmonton and Calgary—or will one or another of these cities take a definite lead? The degree to which Provincial governments can gerrymander rural support to the prejudice of the major cities is obviously reaching its limit.

Will City governments therefore become extremely important, even on the international plane, in the next few years? My guess is that they will. “Ich bin ein Berliner” will be echoed in a hundred other cities across the world. The debts and the out-of-touchness of Federal and Provincial governments, combined with the closeness of the total world economy, will cause civic governments perforce to take the lead in dealing with social and economic problems where the remoter and higher levels of government have failed. Possibly the ‘underground economies’ of individual cities, again under the pressure of economic failure on the larger scale, will become the basis of patriotic and self-promoting cities. It will be part of one of the most important changes taking place in politics at the present time. We have lost faith in ‘big government’ to provide answers to urgent social and economic problems. We are learning that we may not do such a bad job if we look after these areas ourselves.

– Gemini, April 1992